Driven to Distraction The perils of America's highways make stock car racing look like a walk in the park

August 19, 2001

NASCAR drivers race 400 miles on Sundays, and we marvel at how
dangerous, demanding and competitive their sport is. But I have
long suspected that a more dangerous, demanding and competitive
motor sport is simply driving to and from work every weekday in
America. So I resolved to race 404 miles from New York City to
Baltimore and back last Wednesday, one of the hottest days of the
year, and thus answer the question: Which is the more formidable
field--the professionals at Daytona International Speedway or the
cell-toting, road-raging, drunk-driving, mascara-applying field
on the New Jersey Turnpike? Gentleman, start your engine.

10:57 a.m.--Warming up with middle-finger calisthenics, I depart
the Avis garage at Broadway and 76th in a gold Pontiac Grand Am
that is fully loaded with cup holder, change tray and rear
spoiler. (To raise the stakes, I have blithely declined all
insurance.)

11:01 a.m.--At Broadway and 72nd, I fall in behind a woman,
driving a green Town & Country van, who accelerates at a yellow
light and then, thinking better of it, abruptly locks up her
brakes. I jump on my brake pedal with both feet, like Bobby
Thomson on the plate at the Polo Grounds, but it's too late: I
have tapped the woman's bumper, to which is bolted--not
insignificantly--a New Jersey plate. Four blocks and four minutes
removed from the Avis lot, I have already traded paint.

11:14 a.m.--Having traveled about 20 blocks on Ninth Avenue with
his left turn signal on, the driver of a teal Chevy Beretta
hangs, from the lane to the left of me, a sudden right, in front
of me. I lay on the horn, but it cannot be heard over his car's
arena-ready sound system, the bass of which has the Beretta
throbbing like a human heart.

12:08 p.m.--On the New Jersey Turnpike, I am flushed from the
passing lane--at 80 mph--by a rust-encrusted Chevy Impala held
together entirely by bumper stickers, the most memorable of which
is HORN BROKE--WATCH FOR FINGER.

1:15 p.m.--I pit at Wendy's, where the drive-through attendant
informs me that for an additional 20 cents, I can "Biggie-size"
my already enormous beverage, and, for 20 cents more than that,
the boys from local Ladder Company Number 7 will snake a fire
hose down my throat and pump--at three tons of pressure per
square inch--7,000 gallons of Diet Coke directly into my
bladder. (America's fondness for ever larger beverages will
force me, throughout the day, to make hourly visits to the kind
of service-station restrooms in which a prudent man operates
everything--doorknob, faucet handles, toilet flush--with his
shoe sole.)

3:01 p.m.--MAX-level air conditioning has the interior
temperature of the Grand Am resembling that of a refrigerated
boxcar. Still, I notice beneath each armpit of my polo shirt
semicircles of sweat the size of watermelon wedges. My hands, in
the 10-2 position, are rigor-mortised to the steering wheel. My
heart is beating the opening drum riff of Wipeout. Jeff
Gordon--in Turn 2 at Talladega--never has to slalom around a
flatbed truck shedding its payload of sewer pipe. I do, though,
on I-95, outside Baltimore, so I decide to take a 23-hour pit
stop and stay the night in a Baltimore hotel.

2:34 p.m.--I am back on the road, driving blindly behind a Ford
Excursion, an SUV so preposterously large that its driver
requires a sea captain's license. This automotive absurdity
completely eclipses the sun, to say nothing of all road signs.
(The epic size of the Excursion, one can reasonably surmise, is
in inverse relation to the size of its driver's johnson.)

4:19 p.m.--The deejay on 104.5 FM says, "Be careful out there
today, drivers, it's turning into a very big day for road rage."
I am, at the moment, on the Schuylkill Expressway (known to
Philadelphians as the "Sure-Kill") behind a hearselike Chrysler
PT Cruiser with the Pennsylvania vanity plate GRYM RPR. That is
only appropriate, as last year there were 41,800 deaths on U.S.
roadways.

5:13 p.m.--At the height of rush hour I reach the mouth of the
Lincoln Tunnel, where 10 eastbound lanes suddenly bottleneck down
to two, and drivers studiously avoid eye contact while refusing
to yield an inch of roadway to their fellow motorists.

6:04 p.m.--After 51 minutes at the mouth of the Tunnel--repeat:
51 minutes--a saintly man in a Ford pickup allows me to merge
ahead of him. I enter the Tunnel, bound for Manhattan, having
traversed three quarters of a mile in the previous hour.

6:14 p.m.--I pass the Apple Bank for Savings--whose
time-and-temperature marquee reads 94[degrees]--and pull into
the Avis garage, 31 hours and 17 minutes after departing it.
"Welcome back," said one of the attendants. "Was everything
satisfactory?"

"Perfect," I lied. Then I shot from the car as if catapulted,
leaving my silhouette in sweat on the seat back.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)